Apprentice to board of directors: the stuff of manufacturing dreams, surely? Not for the Fort Vale Group, at which three former trainees currently sit on the Lancashire-based manufacturer’s top table. Holding 80% of the global valve sector for tank containers doesn’t seem altogether bad news, either. Edward Machin reports.
Founded in 1967 by Edward Fort OBE to manufacture fuel oil delivery nozzles, the twenty-first century finds Fort Vale as an acknowledged leader in the manufacturer of components for the safe transport, storage and process of hazardous liquids, foodstuffs, powders and compressed liquefied gases — including manways and hatches, airline valves, safety relief devices, top and bottom discharge valves, and secondary closure valves. Exporting the majority — i.e. 85% — of its portfolio, Fort Vale’s valves and fittings are to be found across territories as diverse as the US, Continental and Eastern Europe, Australia and, most prominently, China.
Explains the company’s associate innovation director, Andrew Bryce, “While we have always exported a significant percentage of our offerings, it is to a large degree dictated by shifts in the global industry. Where tank containers were once manufactured in Europe, then moving to South Africa, the trend towards low cost markets means that China is now a primary location for our products.”
Currently holding 80% of the global tank container industry, Fort Vale is nonetheless, “Loath to stand still; still means backwards to us,” says Bryce.
Indeed, given the export-driven nature of the company’s remit, it remains vital for the business to operate as close to its customers as possible, wherever they may be on the map.
Having established a production plant in Shanghai — a short distance from its largest customer — Fort Vale can ensure that not only is it close in a physical sense, but that the operational culture is the same: Chinese customers engage primarily with the Fort Vale’s Chinese employees, thus enabling a greatly enhanced user experience for all concerned.
One stop shop
Further afield, he says, “We are conscious that as previously untapped markets emerge — India, for instance — Fort Vale will have to wait for their ports to develop capabilities in offloading container tanks. Once they do, however, and leveraging our history of unrivalled success in the sector, the company is in a fantastic position to pick up that business almost automatically, we would like to think.” Like most within the industry, whether they hold eight or eighty per cent of market share, cost reduction remains critical for Bryce and Fort Vale. Accordingly, the company’s immediate agenda is a consolidation of its manufacturing facilities at Calder Vale Park: a 74 acre, state-of-theart site located in Simonstone, Lancashire. With the foundry currently situated in Nelson, 10 miles from Calder Vale, “We are seeking to eliminate certain logistical issues that this situation naturally presents,” he says.
“By getting castings onto the machine shop immediately, for example, lead times are reduced by a factor of one day. Because our entire UK operations — bar the foundry — are on a single site, my current project is to ensure that by late next year we remove those transportation requirements altogether, further increasing efficiency in all that we do as a result.”
The door is always open…
Indeed, Fort Vale’s capacity to offer a range of turnkey solutions while designing its own products from a vertically-integrated manufacturing facility guarantees both greatly reduced times to market and the competitive edge needed to remain ahead of the chasing pack. As Bryce says, “We can take an idea or concept, however complex its requirements may be, and turn it into reality. Is the competition doing striving to do the same? Of course. However, we simply do it better, and have done throughout the history of our business.”
While continually seeking to develop new product ranges, Bryce highlights the fact that due to Fort Vale’s extensive expertise in a variety of manufacturing solutions, customers are increasingly coming to the company with a specific product development request. He takes up the story: “If a customer comes on site today with even the genesis of an idea, we have, among others, the R&D, rapid prototyping, CNC turning, milling and fabrication capabilities to see the project through from initial design to casting to final production.” Because the vast majority of production is kept inhouse, complete prototypes can be produced within a week at Fort Vale’s Simonstone facility. Although Bryce accepts that they are not wholly unique in seeking to implement manufacture in such a fashion, “If you are buying or commissioning equipment, and one company quotes you a lead time of eight weeks as opposed to our four weeks, where would you be going?” Ultimately, he says, “It is a fantastic situation for us, in that customers are actively seeking Fort Vale out and asking for our help. Rather than tendering for any given product, they are knocking on the door and saying ‘we want to develop this bespoke solution with you’ because of our reputation in the industry. It doesn’t get much better than that, does it?”
Top of the class
World class. What’s it all about, really? “While as a company we have striven to lead the industry since producing parts for the fuel oil delivery market in the 1970s, ‘world class’ is a term that has only come to light in the last decade or so in relation to manufacturing,” confirms Bryce.
With striving to be world class, almost inevitably, comes Lean. Fort Vale began its ‘journey’ in 2007, working with The Manufacturing Institute prior to moving to its purposebuilt site at Simonstone. Having jointly targeted a number of areas for improvement — three shop floor locations and one office, including toolroom, turning, press shop sales and purchasing advances — the company rolled out a workplace organisation programme shortly after arrival, with its operations for 2010 falling under the banner of ‘What we want! Where we need it! When we need it!’ “While there is no debating that Lean has done some wonderful things for the company, we are particularly keen not to get caught up in a situation where buzzwords become more important than results,” says Bryce. “For example, I believe that the concept of process efficiency can be traced back to Henry Ford and the innovation of his manufacturing methods. Lean, to me, simply amounts to the sum of the production advances seen in the last century.”
Having won The Queen’s Award for Export Achievement twice in the 1980s, in 2008 Fort Vale was again presented with Her Majesty’s most prestigious award for UK business, this time for the company’s work in international enterprise.
With seemingly every manufacturer and his dog claiming world-class credentials, however, what has enabled Fort Vale to maintain is virtual monopoly of the tank container industry? — after all, market share doesn’t lie.
“Quite simply,” he says, “both our chairman, who was awarded an OBE in 1987 for his services to industry, and managing director, Ian Wilson, well into his third decade at Fort Vale, have always looked to embrace those things which will advance the long-term health of the business.
And while we are hugely fortunate to have leaders who are not afraid to dip into their pockets when needed, our philosophy of re-investing the rewards of such endeavours back into the business is one that has served us particularly well.”
Glass ceiling? Not here…
Speaking of well served, arguably the most striking aspect of Fort Vale’s success is the degree to which its foundations are built on a culture of internal progression seldom seen in UK industry; catering for the wider Pendle community in the process. One such is example is the company’s procurement director, Peter Staveley. Joining Fort Vale in 1986 as an apprentice, Staveley currently sits on the company’s board of directors.
“Because we want to develop a skill base specific to the industry-leading work that Fort Vale engages in, the company can — and does — take individuals as they are leaving school or college and integrate them into our culture from a young age,” he says. “That this extends to the highest echelons of the business reflects the fact that we offer opportunities for staff to go the whole way, so to speak.” Set to become fully-qualified operatives upon completion of their training, the 27 apprentices currently on Fort Vale’s books represent 10% of total workforce — an impressive ratio, whichever way you slice it. Perhaps more remarkable yet is that fact that some 28.5% of staff have served an apprenticeship at the company, including three board members, 33 employees engaged in skilled and supervisory roles and those trainees currently going through the scheme.
While companies up and down the land seek to entice staff with the carrot of career progression, “Fort Vale is delivering on opportunities in a way that we see as virtually unique,” says Bryce.
“Apprentice to board member is not, I think it is fair to say, the experience for many who enter the industry in their teens, and yet it has been the reality here. We are also taking on a further eight apprentices this year for a staff of around 250, whereas many of the largest players in UK manufacturing take the same number in a staff number of 5,000. That, we feel, speaks volumes.” “Without wanting to sound trite, Fort Vale very much operates with a family feel: everybody knows each other, it is a great team to work for and, crucially, your apprenticeship doesn’t stop when you reach the age of 21,” adds Staveley. “Indeed, there are always new learning opportunities, with staff going on to degree — and even MBA — level education.” For those apprentices with dreams of one day flying the executive flag, therefore, how do messrs Bryce and Staveley see Fort Vale’s future — with its competitors unlikely to stop snapping at the company’s heels? Says the former, “We try not to overly concern ourselves with the competition; after all, they haven’t been the ones driving our success. If the business is running fast enough, continuing to reduce costs and keeping our eighty per cent share of the global market we couldn’t be happier.”